William Rees is best known as the inventor of the ‘ecological footprint’ concept along with his PhD student, Mathis Wackernagel, in the mid 1990s. An academic focused on ecological economics, Rees has made a reputation for himself as critic of cartesian dualism and the modern project of material growth. Less well known is the story of how he became so interested in the problem of our modern disassociation from nature.
In this interview with Rees by Mike Gismondi he reveals more of the character behind the philosophy, starting with his childhood;
I suppose you could say that the whole idea of the ecological footprints started when I was eight years old, or nine years old. I was a farm boy in southern Ontario, at least on my mother’s side we had a family farm. About eight of us cousins were used as, well, cheap labour. This was back in the pre-tractor days, we didn’t even have electricity in the late forties and early fifties. One wonderful warm July summer in about 1952 or 53, I was nine or ten years old, we were in my grandmother’s country porch, thirteen of us or so, having lunch after a hard morning’s work in the field. I happened to glance down at my plate full of young new carrots, little potatoes, fresh lettuce, and so on, and to make a long story short, I realized that there wasn’t a single thing on the plate that I hadn’t had a hand in growing. That thought hit me like a rush of cold water being poured down my back. I was riveted. I suppose it was like an epiphany kind of experience. I was so excited by that notion, I don’t think I was able to eat my lunch. At any rate, years later this thing just kept popping up over and over again, it was what made me want to go into zoology and biology at university. I went all the way through in population ecology to my Ph.D. So, it has very deep roots, being interested in that connection to the Earth, or the environment.
Throughout university I was constantly in search of what I thought should have been obvious, something called human ecology: the study of human beings as species of organism. I couldn’t find it anywhere. It astonished me that academic ecologists and professional ecology had no focus at all on humans; it was all oriented to non-human species. I failed miserably to find any course that treated human beings as species. We were just beginning to think of environmental studies and that sort of thing, but that’s not human ecology, that’s really impact ecology.
I sought in vain for what I thought I really wanted to do. Ultimately, when it came time to apply for jobs, I tried desperately to create a niche for myself or at least to find a job where it would be possible to study humans as species of organisms as components of ecosystems. To my delight, a chance came up at UBC. The director of the planning program there Crawford Hawling, Buzz Hawling, one of Canada’s premier ecologists, one of my mentors from way back created a joint position between the Institute of Resource Ecology and the School of Planning at UBC. I competed for that position and wound up going out there, ultimately moving most of my teaching into the planning school, where I, in a sense, created an environmental or resource oriented part of the planning program and developed a couple of courses in human ecology and ecological economics. That’s where it all began, way back when I was a kid interested in human ecology.
His academic convictions clearly have their roots in a more personal relationship with humanity and nature. Opening the following engaging talk, he confronts us almost brutally with our own collective contradictions. He reminds us that on an international scale we are neither intelligent, forward planning, nor compassionate- as much as we would like to think we are (and when I say we, this primarily means us irresponsible consumers in the west). His thoughts are a strong reminder of the fact that we cannot address environmental issues separately from social justice and a reevaluation of our collective attitudes.